Acupuncture for Cancer Support: Before, During and After

Acupuncture for cancer support is rapidly gaining widespread acceptance and recognition amongst both oncologists and patients. More than 60% of leading cancer treatment centers in the U.S. incorporate acupuncture for cancer support as part of comprehensive treatment. During the course of medical treatment, acupuncture for cancer support is effective for managing a variety of symptoms that impact the quality of life of cancer patients, ranging from joint pain to depression.

For many people, a cancer diagnosis can be a “wake up call” to better wellness care life-long. Acupuncture for cancer support continues after medical treatment concludes and the cancer is in remission. Post-cancer, people often adopt a proactive and preventative approach to health. They continue better self-care throughout life, incorporating acupuncture with other wellness practices. Roughly 10% of cancer survivors in the U.S. have used acupuncture. Most report they are using acupuncture for wellness and immune support.

This article will focus on the benefits of acupuncture for cancer support during the course of medical treatment. We will set aside the topic of acupuncture for wellness after cancer – and perhaps before cancer – for a future article. We will review the “state of the art” of clinical research on acupuncture for cancer support, and the benefits acupuncture can have for the quality of life of cancer patients.

Safety of Acupuncture for Cancer Support

Acupuncture is generally considered to be a very safe, low-risk therapy which rarely has side effects. Cancer patients have special needs while they are undergoing treatment, and it is important to choose a qualified licensed acupuncturist who is familiar with the needs of cancer patients.

The high level of safety with acupuncture makes it especially compelling to include acupuncture for cancer support as part of comprehensive treatment. Cancer patients are often taking a cocktail of various drugs to control the side effects of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea, as well as drugs to control the pain of the cancer itself. Acupuncture for cancer support can serve a role in reducing the number of pharmaceutical medications needed, thereby reducing the risk of drug side-effects and multiple drug interactions. Moreover, acupuncture in combination with drug therapy is sometimes more effective than drugs alone.

Pain Management with Acupuncture for Cancer Support

One of the chief reasons people seek out acupuncture is to relieve pain. The benefits of acupuncture for pain management in the general population are well-established, well-known and popular. Acupuncture can relieve many forms of pain, including joint pain, back pain, headaches and arthritis, to name a few.

While there have been fewer studies in cancer patients, we can infer that acupuncture for cancer support is likely to help relieve many forms of pain in various cancers, as well. Clinical research studies of acupuncture for cancer support have shown acupuncture to be effective for relief of joint pain for breast cancer patients. Acupuncture also helps control chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (numbness and tingling) in multiple myeloma and in breast cancer patients.

In some cases, acupuncture for cancer pain may be most effective in combination with pharmaceutical pain relief. Acupuncture in combination with drugs results in quicker relief, more sustained relief, and better quality of life. In some cases, acupuncture alone is just as effective as drugs therapy alone. An added benefit of acupuncture is that is has fewer side-effects and lower risk than drugs for pain.

Acupuncture for Cancer Support: Fatigue and Energy Level

Fatigue and low energy is very common among cancer patients, due to the side-effects of treatment as well as the cancer itself. Even a short course of acupuncture treatment can help improve energy levels, with lasting results. A recent study of breast cancer patients showed significant improvements in energy level after six weeks of treatment, when acupuncture was added to the usual care regimen. Moreover, the benefits of acupuncture in relieving fatigue were sustained after even that short course of treatment was concluded.

Acupuncture for Hot Flashes and Menopause in Breast Cancer Patients

Menopausal symptoms, including hot flashes, are a significant concern for breast cancer patients during and after cancer treatment. Hormone replacement therapy is unsuitable for breast cancer patients, because of the increased risk of cancer recurrence. Acupuncture for cancer support provides a safe alternative non-drug therapy. Acupuncture has been shown to be effective for many of the symptoms of menopause. In addition to hot flashes, this includes sleep disorders, paresthesias (numbness or tingling on the skin), joint pain, dizziness, headaches, and irritability.

The physiological causes of hot flashes are complex, and how well a woman responds to acupuncture depends a lot on her overall health condition and how well she cares for herself. Acupuncture is most effective when integrated with wellness self-care. Even a short course of 10 sessions has sustained benefits in reducing menopausal symptoms.

Acupuncture for Cancer Support: Relieving Other Side Effects

Nausea and vomiting are very common and debilitating side effects of chemotherapy treatment. Early clinical research on acupuncture for cancer support focused on relief of nausea and vomiting. This research established conclusively that acupuncture is highly effective as adjunctive therapy for both post-operative and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, reducing the need for anti-emetic drugs.

Xerostomia (dry mouth) is a common and debilitating side effect in patients undergoing radiation treatment for head and neck cancers. In one recent study, acupuncture treatment reduced symptoms and significantly stimulated salivation within 3 to 7 weeks of beginning therapy.

Immune Enhancement with Acupuncture for Cancer Support

Perhaps the most interesting question in studying acupuncture for cancer support is the effect that acupuncture has on modulating the immune system, supporting the body’s ability to regulate and prevent malignancy. Beyond simply providing palliative relief for a variety of debilitating symptoms, does acupuncture stimulate and balance the immune system in ways that help it destroy cancer cells? Could acupuncture support the immune system in destroying a malignancy, or even help prevent a cancer from forming? While these are big areas of research with many unanswered questions, there are a few pilot studies that suggest that acupuncture may help. One small study of colorectal cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy showed enhanced NK (natural killer) cell activity, white blood cell count, and neutrophil count. Interestingly, the study also notes that acupuncture relieved depression and had psycho-emotional benefits, pointing to the mind-body connection between immune health, stress and emotional health.

Psychological & Emotional Benefits of Acupuncture for Cancer Support

Chronic illness and pain of any kind can be depressing, and patients need emotional support. In the general population, acupuncture is well-known for having a variety of benefits for emotional health, such as: relieving depression and anxiety; reducing irritability; improving quality of sleep and increasing mental clarity. Likewise, acupuncture has emotional benefits for cancer patients, as well. Acupuncture is a safe, non-pharmaceutical option for supporting emotional health. It can help reduce the chemical burden of cancer patients already taking a variety of drugs, and improve quality of life.

Conclusions

Acupuncture for cancer support offers many potential benefits for patients undergoing treatment. Acupuncture can assist in managing a variety of symptoms resulting from cancer treatment, as well as from the cancer itself. Symptoms treatable with acupuncture include pain, neuropathy, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, dry mouth, hot flashes, sleep disturbance. In addition, acupuncture for cancer support has benefits for emotional health and well-being, and can help with depression, anxiety, irritability and mental clarity.

As a non-drug alternative with low risk and very few potential side effects, acupuncture helps reduce the chemical burden of cancer patients taking multiple medications. It is an effective therapy that enhances quality of life, and can be part of a comprehensive care program for cancer treatment.

Even more importantly, acupuncture can be beneficial as part of a life-long wellness program. Acupuncture modulates the immune system and has a wide-spread balancing effect on many physiological processes, benefiting both physical and emotional health. Many people choose to use acupuncture post-cancer, as well as preventatively, for well-being and overall quality of life.

Inner Works Acupuncture provides support for cancer and many chronic health conditions, with Five Element acupuncture, Zero Balancing, nutritional therapy and Chinese herbal medicine. Call (503) 227-2127 to learn more and to schedule an appointment.